Cuttle fish dish with traditional Vietnamese herbs at KOTO Saigon
Just before the turn of the millennium, a restaurant named KOTO Hanoi opened in Vietnam's capital to give street kids and other disadvantaged children practical experience in restaurant work.
Now its namesake has started up in Ho Chi Minh City with the same mission and the same motto: Know One, Teach One.
Like in Hanoi, KOTO Saigon is where these youngsters gain their all-important practical experience after 20 months at the KOTO training centers in Hanoi and HCMC learning to cook, serve drinks, wait on tables, and master other aspects of restaurant work.
Any profit from the business is invested back into the KOTO project in Vietnam, which aims to train graduates who are not only well skilled and highly employable, but also "˜well-rounded' individuals.
Hidden in a quiet alley off Hai Ba Trung Street in District 3, KOTO Saigon features a large terrace on the ground floor, and the same upstairs, making it ideal for private parties, meetings and functions.
The first-floor terrace is a peaceful place for enjoying the morning, late afternoon or evening.
KOTO Saigon is open six days a week - from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday and 10 a.m. to late on Friday and Saturday.
We went there for lunch last week and sat on velvet chairs near a glass door through which we could see a big, verdant rose apple tree laden with fruit swinging in the breeze.
KOTO serves international fare and creative Vietnamese food.
A helpful waiter described the house specials: the KOTO miniburger and the stock quail.
The miniburger in KOTO's special noodle buns contains a beef patty, fried quail egg, beetroot, caramelized onion relish, sliced tomato, and lettuce, and costs VND145,000 with fat chips on the side.
The master stock quail, priced at VND130,000, is wok-tossed and comes with sweet potato, ginger puree and house-pickled baby onions.
While some at our table ordered the specials, the rest opted to share a light lunch of wok-tossed pipis with ginger, spring onions, fish sauce and fresh lime for VND65,000, smoked fish and confit of spring onion ravioli, coriander and tomato salsa, spiced cauliflower sauce and crispy herbs for VND110,000, and aromatic braised pork with taro root puree, baby herbs and crackling served on betel leaves for VND75,000.
What we liked most about KOTO's food was the flavor of the fresh herbs and the creative fusion of its dishes.
KOTO Saigon's training center opened in January 2010, 12 years after the birth of KOTO Hanoi. Since then one hundred children have benefited from the program.
The restaurant opening is the final stage in KOTO's duplication of its successful Hanoi social enterprise model.
One of the beneficiaries at the Saigon eatery is Huynh Thi Thuy Hang, a 20-year-old waitress who used to live in a charity home down south in Ben Tre Province.
"Before joining KOTO I spent my entire time studying and cooking. Since joining, however, I have time for sport and travel, and having fun with friends", Hang said.
"Thanks to the 20-month course at KOTO, I'm more confident and can express my thoughts and feelings, and I know how to please others. I'm also learning English and life skills, and how to work as part of a team."
To broaden her experience, Hang has started working behind the bar and attending bartender classes in the evening. As she learns, she teaches her classmates what she knows about making coffee and drinks, and tending bar.
Once she has finished her practical training at KOTO Saigon, Hang will be looking for bar work elsewhere and competing in the coffee-making competitions in town.
Seeing the happiness and determination in the eyes of the young woman with the looks and slim build of a teenager, I knew I would be returning to the restaurant soon.
At KOTO Saigon, every penny we spend gives more hope and opportunity for children in need of a brighter future.